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A tale of survival from the wilds of the Bronx

GRAHAM Greene once said that writers should keep a chip of ice in their hearts. It's sound advice, with exceptions. Despite her generous portrayal of her troubled family life, Liz Murray succeeds as an author. Few parents would seem to be more deserving of contempt than her own.

Murray was born in 1980 with drugs in her blood (but healthy), and her memoir follows the trajectory of a Narcotics Anonymous narrative - an account of despair and redemption like the ones told nightly, as she writes, in the basements of urban churches. In her case, she suffered not from the ravages of her own addiction but from those of her parents. In pacing and style, however, "Breaking Night" reads more like an adventure story than a morality tale. It's a white-knuckle account of survival, marked by desperation, brutality and fear, set in the wilds of the Bronx.

Murray's parents usually burned through their monthly welfare check in a week, spending the money on cocaine, while Murray and her older sister, Lisa, scrambled to stay alive. They subsisted on eggs and mayonnaise sandwiches, occasionally splitting a tube of toothpaste and a cherry-flavored ChapStick to dull their hunger pangs. Once her mother left them alone with a child molester, a man who also supplied their mother with drugs. Despite such appalling, reckless behavior, Murray loved her mother, a "radiant and wild-looking" woman with "long, wavy black hair" who wore "flower-child blouses" in the East Village in the late 1970s and died of AIDS at 42. Murray also admired her father, a graduate-school dropout who kept The New Yorker by his bed and read voraciously.

Murray won a scholarship and went to Harvard; she inspired a movie, "Homeless to Harvard," that was broadcast on the Lifetime network. She more than survived.

"Breaking Night" itself is full of heart, without a sliver of ice, and deeply moving.


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